One of the first actions the federal government took after the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic was to suspend student loan payments. All federal student loans were placed into forbearance, and the interest rate was set to 0% on March 13, 2020.
While payments were originally set to resume later in 2020, they’ve been pushed back several times under both the Trump and Biden administrations. There’s been another new development in federal student loan payments, so be sure to find out exactly how you can prepare to start making your loan payments again.
When do student loan payments resume?
Until recently, the pause on student loan payments was set to end on September 30, 2021. But on August 6, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education announced another extension, with payments now set to resume on January 31, 2022.
“This will give the Department of Education and borrowers more time and more certainty as they prepare to restart student loan payments,” Biden said in an August 6 statement. “It will also ensure a smoother transition that minimizes loan defaults and delinquencies that hurt families and undermine our economic recovery.”
The Department of Education has made it clear that this will be the final extension of loan payments. And while January 31 might seem like a long way off, there’s no better time to start preparing.
How to prepare for your student loan payments
It’s been more than one year since federal student loan borrowers were required to make loan payments. And it’s safe to say that plenty of borrowers aren’t prepared to add them back into their monthly budgets. Here are four things you can do to start preparing for loan payments to resume.
Figure out how much you owe
It may have been a while since you’ve checked in on your federal student loan account. And if you’ve graduated since loan payments were paused, you may never have checked it.
The first step to preparing for loan payments to start again is to figure out exactly how much you owe. While the number might seem daunting, it’s better to face the issue head-on and look at the big picture.
Determine your monthly payment
The next step to getting ready to make your student loan payments is to figure out what your monthly payment will be. If you’re on a standard repayment plan, then your payment should be the same as it was before payments were paused. But if you’re on an income-driven or graduated repayment plan, then your payments may change. Now is the time to figure out what they’ll be so you can start preparing.
Build up your emergency fund
Starting February 2022, student loan borrowers are going to have less disposable income available in their budgets. As a result, less money will be available to put toward other financial goals and financial emergencies that may come up.
Before payments resume, now is the time to make sure you have a healthy emergency fund in place. Wondering how much you should save? There’s some debate among financial experts, but most recommend saving enough to cover 3-6 months of expenses.
Make room in your budget for the payments now
You don’t have to wait until student loan payments resume to make room for them in your budget. In fact, it’s better to start now. You can get used to having that extra expense in your budget and have some time to adjust any spending habits that might cause you to go over budget. Use online personal finance tools like the Personal Capital Dashboard to track your monthly expenses and build a sustainable budget.
But what should you actually do with the money you set aside for those payments?
Well, there are a few options. First, you can use that money to put toward your emergency fund, any high-interest debt you have, or another financial goal you have. You could also actually start making student loan payments early. Because there’s no interest on them right now, your payments will be more impactful than they will when the interest kicks back in.
Another strategy you can use is to set aside the money you would be putting toward loan payments in high-yield savings accounts. When loan payments kick back in, you can make one large lump-sum payment on your loans or put the money towards something else.
What to do if you can’t afford your payments
Unfortunately, millions of Americans are still facing financial hardship from the pandemic. A recent Pew Research Center report found that about half of non-retired adults will have a hard time reaching financial goals because of financial setbacks from the pandemic.
For many, these financial setbacks will make it hard to make student loan payments. Here are a few things you can do if you don’t think you’ll be able to afford your payments in February.
Switch to an income-driven repayment plan
If you’ve been on a standard repayment plan for your loans, consider switching to an income-driven plan. The federal government offers four different income-driven plans which cap your payments at a certain percentage of your income. Most plans limit your payments to 10% of your discretionary income.
There’s a loan simulator on the federal financial aid website to help you determine what your payments would be under a different payment plan. If you’re ready to apply for an income-driven plan, you can request it through the Department of Education website.
Apply for loan deferment or forbearance
If you can’t afford to make payments at all in February, then you can request deferment or forbearance of your loans. Both deferment and forbearance allow you to pause your student loan payments due to financial hardship. But they’re typically used in different circumstances.
Depending on the type of loans you have, interest may accrue while your payments are paused and will capitalize when your payments resume if you don’t pay it off first. If you do apply for forbearance or deferment, be sure to make your loan payments until your request is approved so your loans don’t go into delinquency or default.
What about student loan forgiveness?
Plenty of borrowers have been hesitant to make any major progress on paying off their loans in the hopes that the Biden administration will forgive a portion of federal student loans, as was a part of his campaign platform.
Since taking office, Biden has asked Congress to pass limited student loan forgiveness and has asked the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education to review his authority to use an executive action to forgive student loans.
It’s impossible to know what action, if any, the administration will take on student loan forgiveness. And for borrowers with large amounts of student loan debt, loan forgiveness likely wouldn’t wipe out all of their debt anyways.
Given the uncertainty, borrowers can use the time leading up to February 2022 to assess any developments in the situation. But once loan payments resume, each borrower will have to decide for themselves whether to try to aggressively tackle their loans, or simply make the minimum payments.
What can you do now? Start managing your finances in one place. Millions of U.S. households use the Personal Capital Dashboard to create a budget, analyze their investments, and plan for long-term goals, like debt paydown or retirement.
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